Public Parks in Dense Urban Cores

As cities see more and more skyward growth, from highrises over single-family detached homes, the value of space also experiences astronomical escalation. Like São Paulo and Buenos Aires, China’s megacities are comprised of towers, where people live in high density. With much less private space at home, the realm of public space and community centers — whether covered or open air — becomes really important.

towering highrises with huge balconies
In Chengdu, one of many clusters of highrise units that fill the city.

Public parks become requirements in a city, as means of promoting physical and mental health, and as sites for cultivating community and individual happiness.

From what I have seen of Chinese parks or 公园, there are similarities but also differences in how people use them. Exercise is definitely a major reason for people to use the park but the types we see are different, between Chinese and American parks. For one, soccer and basketball are activities reserved for the 球场 or sports fields. Exercises you’d find at Chinese parks include Tai Qi and martial arts, ballroom-dancing, bird-walking, calligraphy practice with broom-sized brushes, poetry reciting and singing, and fashion catwalking practice.

Loci of Activity & Fitness

If I think about what I do in my house in California, I cook, garden, do laundry, eat with family and friends, and hang out and chat. If you live in a compact high-rise apartment, these activities become more challenging. Gardening and exercise may become impossible unless you have a balcony and extra space, and not all apartments have them. Ideas about communal laundry (the laundromat as a community center) and about communal gardening (like in many cities in the US) suddenly become really relevant. Open space itself is a meditative and therapeutic resource that appeal to our basic urges.

In fact, the design of the Chinese public parks lend themselves to these activities, with clusters of trees demarcating zones. Hardscaped (concrete and stone mosaic) pathways and plazas provide the surface. Surrounding tall foliage create walls or transition zones between open spaces. The parks themselves are usually free to the public and have multiple entry gates. The park space itself is quite large, like all infrastructure in China.

Dad sitting on bench in park
My dad taking a break at South Park, 南园,in Taicang, 太仓, a city one hour from Shanghai. Many former estates, such as this one, are converted into public parks. A classical Chinese bridge with its steep stairs and generous clearance for boats is visible in the background.

Tertiary zones are characterized by benches and pavilions nestled in the foliage, creating smaller, private spaces for drinking tea, casual conversation, and the occasional smooching. Often times, the park features one or more artificial lakes with a bridge arching high over its narrowest part, offering a view and opportunities to take selfies with friends.

A Social Hub for Passive & Active Participation

The park is never desolate, even on the weekdays. It is a social locus, providing both distance and respite from the bustle and chaos of city life while ensuring some level of safety and society amidst the presence of others also usually in a state of enjoyment.

The buildings now house exhibitions and artwork.
People practicing slow-motion combat, a kind of Tai Qi, where you harness the strength and force of your opponent to protect yourself. Here, men and women of all ages show up and practice together. It is pretty informal and still quite popular.
Offline dating. Here, parents and elders advertise their single adult children to other parents or single people. The flyers atop the umbrellas give general information about the individual: Gender, profession, interests, and personality. At the bottom is contact information. Of course, you are welcome to inquire further with the presiding relative.
Sunday morning in the walkways at People’s Park in Shanghai. Parents helping their adult children with matchmaking. Generations sharing ideas of what comprises a promising partnership.

Gehl ArchitectsOne of the biggest challenges that Chinese cities face is in the reclamation, renewal and retrofit of its cities’ public space, streets and existing urban fabric. The speed, scale and sprawl of Chinese urbanisation has void many citizens their right to quality public space beyond the immediate street layout. To achieve the sustainable transition we’ve talked about here, cities will have to ask themselves – what do we want from our urban realm? And how can our planning systems deliver that against traditional interpretations of urban scale, mass and historical and cultural nuances? Cities need to be evaluated based on other indicators than just GDP growth. We see this change happening now.

Park-like Shopping Centers that Support Historic Monuments

The park as a concept is more important than its literal designation. As an idea, it seems to be a place that provides proximity to nature (plants and animals), contact with open air and earth, and organic social interaction through a flexibility of activities. To this end, I saw many spaces that operate as parks but may not be parks, per se.

In Chengdu, Taikooli ,太古里 outdoor mall features both very contemporary and very old architecture. The balanced proportion of indoor and outdoor space make it a popular gathering spot for all ages. Owned by a private investor, it shares similar usage to state-run public parks.
At the very center of Taikooli is the ancient Daci Temple 大慈寺, the Temple of Infinite Compassion and Mercy. This Buddhist temple has been around for nearly 1,600 years

For example, an interesting trend I spotted was the integration of historic landmark, shopping center, and park all rolled into one. These outdoor malls feature austere architectural design, vast open spaces for social activities such as those practiced in parks, porous access, and mature landscaping. The business rationale behind such a set-up could be economic viability. Landmarks are expensive to maintain and admission fees are too low to make a dent in these costs. However, retail rental income can provide a stronger source of revenue, with shops increasing incentive for visits. Inviting the kind of hanging out that also occurs in parks encourages discretionary spending; however, the full suite of typical activities in public parks may be beyond the physical scope of these commercial gathering areas.

After a day of shopping, you can light a candle at the temple and make a prayer to repent and enrich your spiritual self too.

Medians as Parks

Other atypical park spaces include the generous medians and lush pedestrian walkways in the city. The non-car zones are often canopied with trees and lined intermittently with benches with nestled in abundant greenery. These adjacent, liminal spaces are used for resting, hanging out, reading, and other low-impact park exercises. Their physical and sensorial distinction from the built environment provides mental sanctuary.

verdant medians
The greenery surrounds the bike and pedestrian lanes, creating a park-like travel experience. The dockless bikes collect in a leafy alcove. In the distance to the right, cars along the street are visible. The amount of garden foliage and number of trees are generous.

Public dancing occurs in plazas, on sidewalks that are extra broad and in parks. These kinds of natural, serendipitous social gatherings are more of a cultural ritual than a designed program. They attract spectators and participants in equally, creating vibrancy and free-of-charge entertainment. They also provide a glimpse of local culture unchained to commerce and to politics. These benefits can counter-balance the limitations of high-rise apartment living and strengthen the fabric of communities.

Urban planners can think about creating park-like locales and experiences in interstitial and liminal zones as space becomes scarcer in urban settings. Not every neighborhood can afford the extravagant space needed to establish a formal park. Plus, such numerous and smaller dispersions encourage accessibility for a greater number of residents. This may also be a more “human-scale” approach, rendering the urban layout to be more diverse and reduce impact on the transportation system.

Unabashed dancing takes place in parks and on sidewalks that are large enough to allow. Shyness is not an issue. Informal gatherings with those who are in the mood to dance.

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